A journey on the Transmongolian Railway


I didn’t want to sleep in hostels or in small hotels. I wanted to see what Siberian houses looked like. I wanted to see their walls, their toilets, their chairs. Although it took me nearly 4 months to find them, I finally found some families willing to be my hosts. I wish I could say we kept in touch after my permanence with them, but it didn’t work out. Sometimes geography plays against us and borders become too high walls to valicate. Not even Internet can save us. They will live again in my words here. In my memories, Siberia will always resound in our half-smiles, our unspoken ideas, their kind although rough gestures, their strange alarm clocks, their mattresses that were so hard that they led you to think that you were studying to become a fakir.

I thought Siberian cities were small. It’s going to take me 5 minutes to get to their house, I guessed. I couldn’t phatom how wrong I was. It was never 5 minutes. Stalin built them functional but eerie to accomodate Communist needs of stability and practicality. They reminded me of thick-walled, grey boxes fallen from the sky. Dominant colours were pearl grey, boiled potato yellow and out-of-date turkey pink. Almost no flowers and no playgrounds for kids around, no boulevards where people could exchange a kiss, or not many bars where you could hide from the steppe wind. Life in these cities must be as comfortable as an iron blanket. Lenin is represented in thousands of statues that point their finger towards a future that didn’t come into being. His ghost doesn’t arrive here anymore. He must be stuck in his pyramidal grave on the Red Square.These were my first gloomy thoughts in Siberia.

My first hosting family in Siberia lived in Perm. They sent their driver to pick me from the train station. I wasn’t scared when I saw first him. I felt sorry for him: how could he text his friends with hands that were as big as a rugby stadium? How could he wear shirts with wrists as round as my bathroom pipes? Although his face was as large as a highway, and he was practically hairless, he looked like a good guy. He picked up my backpack with his little finger without any effort, although it must have weighed at least 23 kilos.

Then, something quite extraordinary happened.
It was a deep and thick sound. It was like trees were being cut down around us. The ground shook. Until then, we hadn’t said anything to each other. Then, that sound.

He had burped. I have never heard a burp as loud as his afterwards in my life. I must have opened my eyes in a funny way, because he started to laugh. He started off the car, and without a care in the world, he began talking to me in Russian. It was such a reassuring feeling to be able to understand one word every 4324. Bar, square, building, Lenin, Moscow. Then, out of the blue, he stopped the car, he said Get off (I think), and we went into a bar. He introduced me to two gentlemen, wearing golden rings which could have easily covered the public debit index for at least 4 former republics. I never understood who they were. I kept on smiling and sweating. When they asked me What would you like to drink? the only understandable drink that came into my mind was Coke. The second one was vodka, but I didn’t think it was appropriate.

We left the bar, and we arrived where my hosting family lived. The elevator was fiery red, and once it started moving upwards, its sound was as loud as my driver’s burp. I don’t know what they thought I looked like: when their 4-year-old boy saw me, he ran away screaming makehergoawaymakehergoaway.
Marika and Ygor, instead, smiled at me, and after dismissing their driver, they showed me around. They had a huge balcony where they entertained their guests with generous BBQs. They were both bankers, a solid and secure positon, told me Marika who was a former swimming star. I love looking at them, how in love they were with each other in a part of the world where life wasn’t easy. Ygor gave me a lift into the city centre every morning. I liked listening to him describing how Perm used to look like, how its factories were once rich. He liked to talk about the Siberian winter, as freezing as a ruler smashed into your teeth, and also about his daughter, who studied chemistry somewhere far away. I never asked how they could afford a private driver. We are told we are all different in this world, and that because of these differencies, it’s very hard to meet mid way: in my books, staying with Marika and Ygor was easy. Natural. Our motto was no bullshit. Towels were always fresh clean in the bathroom. My bedroom was warm and its wall were as blue as the sky. When I left they gave me a pair of slippers, you will need them on the train.

My adventure in Krasnoyarsk was different.
Nobody was waiting for me at the train station. Nobody burped on my way to my second host family.Then, again, something extraordinary happened: it started raining, and out of nowhere an old lady gave me an umbrella. She stayed with me until the lashing rain stopped and then took me by the hand and walked me along dirty and dilapidated streets to my guests. After some famous towers were disintegrated, they told us to believe that The Others are dangerous. Tell them to get lost, it doesn’t work like this for us. People can still be an incredible source of joy. Still, there I was now, in a city whose main attraction was a half-built skyscraper. I held my Nikon in my hands, empty headed, a bit disappointed. It felt like such a brutal place. It was like beauty had been eradicated.

My second host family was strange, to say the least. I sometimes wondered if they existed for real. The only person I managed to have some sort of conversation was the eldest daughter: she was supposed to be a journalist. I could picture the two of us, hand in hand, walking down Siberian boulevards of freedom of speech.
It turned out that she wrote for her school magazine. She was no Daniel Pearl after all. She cooked quite bizzare breakfasts for me: one fried egg, and one pear.Or one fried egg, and one apple. I am sure there were other family members. I could see their shoes, in the hall. I could see their faces in out of focus photographs in the room I was given. They looked like ancient shots, from the Seventies and with the Bleeding Christ hanging above my bed, they didn’t provide the perfect background for peaceful nights. Water pipes in the house must have been twisted, or tired as over-used. Water running through them reminded me of a bear grunt. I constantly felt unease in that creepy flat. I preferred to spend hours around Krasnoyarsk, looking for a soft photograph. I was counting on Lenin’s index to indicate me a bit of beauty. No bloody chance.

Places are like people, sometimes. You have to be willing to give them a second chance. Mine was given to Irina, in Krasnoyarsk. She was the owner of a hole of a restaurant where I ended up by accident to escape the wild Siberian wind.
«You are the first tourist of the year, or of the whole history. For sure, you are the first Italian since the Wall came down».
I don’t know whether she was serious or not. It didn’t matter, anyhow. Sometimes it’s necessary to read acts of goodness in tiny gestures. She added «Let me decide for you». After a while, she came out of her kitchen with one of the best meals I have ever tasted in my life. It was just her and me and she asked me «Do you mind if I eat with you?» We lunched together and she couldn’t understand why I had left Europe to come to Siberia on holidays. Irina asked me about London and Venice, mitical cities for those who live in the wind. She spoke pretty good English, and excellent German. When I asked her if I could take a photograph of her, she declined saying «No, I didn’t have time to put on my makeup this morning». New customers came in. Everyone knew her by her first name.
Sometimes a bowl of warm soup can hide a bit of a miracle.

 Life on a train   Lake Baikal 

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